Album of the Week, August 23: A Night At the Opera by Queen

QueenOperaQueen ruled the musical world for the better part of a decade, a confident, peerless quartet with a remarkable frontman and seamless musical collaboration, blending heavy metal with camp, prog with music hall, hard rock with clever observations. The band formed when its members were in college. Guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor were in Smile, a short-lived group admired by a Zanzibar-born singer and pianist named Farrokh Bulsara. He stepped in when thier vocalist departed, encouraging them to push the boundaries of their music and live presence. By the time bassist John Deacon came on board, Smile had become Queen and Bulsara had transformed into Freddie Mercury. After finishing school, the quartet concentrated on their music, mounting increasingly complex live shows and releasing a trio of albums that started with adequate metal and evolved into the unique musical blend that was Queen. Nothing prepared the world for their fourth outing, however, the finest, boldest release in a catalog of strong statements.

Title A Night At the Opera
Act Queen
Label Elektra Release Date November 21, 1975
Producer Roy Thomas Baker and Queen
U.S. Chart  #4 U.K. Chart  #1
Tracks
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. Death On Two Legs (Dedicated to…)
  2. Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon
  3. I’m In Love With My Car
  4. You’re My Best Friend [#16]
  5. ’39
  6. Sweet Lady
  7. Seaside Rendezvous
  8. The Prophet’s Song
  9. Love of My Life
  10. Good Company
  11. Bohemian Rhapsody [#9 / #2]
  12. God Save the Queen

Famously the most expensive rock album ever recorded at the time, the elaborate sessions and production work brought out the best in the band. It also put a strain on them, with May asserting that if A Night At the Opera had not been a hit it would have ended the group. Instead it was an international smash, transforming Queen from stars to megastars overnight.

Mercury teases the listener from the start, opening the album with a delightful little piano figure that makes the subsequent blast of angry guitar jarring and powerful. Death On Two Legs is a brilliant, funny, over-the-top put-down song, aimed at the ex-manager that the band were pleased to be finished with. Mercury’s lyrics were so precise and biting that Brian May has said he had trouble singing his harmonies at first.

Continuing the carnival ride, Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon is a quaint music hall number sung through headphones placed in a bucket to achieve a nostalgic quality. It’s a lovely number, capturing the more whimsical side of the band. Heavy metal roars back into the action with I’m In Love With My Car, one of Roger Taylor’s best writing contributions. It’s flawless bombast, capturing the best camp spirit by taking itself perfectly seriously. John Deacon’s evergreen hit You’re My Best Friend changes things up yet again, a charming love song with a fun Wurlitzer lead.

Somehow Brian May manages to raise the stakes again with ’39. It’s a space rock folk song about the perils of faster-than-light time dilation. And it’s REALLY good. Brimming with sincere humanity, this fantastical theme is one of the most real moments on the disc.

Even Queen couldn’t keep up the energy forever, and the next trio are solid entries that suffer mostly in comparison to the rest of the disc. Sweet Lady is musically solid, featuring some of Taylor’s finest high-speed drumming, but otherwise a pretty tepid metal love song. Seaside Rendezvous is a smart tempo change and a pleasant song, but a bit too much like Sunday Afternoon without as much charm. The Prophet’s Song is the longest track in Queen history, a ponderous beast of a song with some fascinating moments but without the internal cohesion that makes the other epic on the disc a classic.

Mercury’s Love of My Life brings back the power in a quietly moving tribute to romance. It is the band’s most-covered song and was a long-time concert favorite, with the singer often pausing to let the audience take over. English folk legend Norma Waterson chose the song to represent Mercury on her tribute-driven second solo album. Good Company is a smart, funny advice song, another tribute to older musical styles that works well because of the fun sincerity that Mercury gives it.

And then there’s the rhapsody. Bohemian Rhapsody, a song referred to throughout the sessions as “Fred’s Thing” because of the writer’s obsession with its crafting. He assembled all the parts, asking his bandmates to record their contributions without a clear sense of what the final product would sound like. With 180 separate overdubs, this pre-digital construct required so much tape splicing that the final master showed daylight through the tape. It was worth the effort, however, becoming the band’s signature song and a distinctive statement of all the contrasts that their musical consistency made work.

May wraps things up with a bit of God Save the Queen, an homage to the Hendrix rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. It’s another clever moment and a nice coda to a wonderful album.

FURTHER LISTENING: Queen continued to dominate the airwaves and the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, churning out a steady stream of fascinating music. No other album comes close to Opera, as each one usually suffered from a bit too much bombast and a lacked the consistency and cohesion that somehow arose from complexity of their masterpiece. After a couple of synth dance bombs in the 80s, they found their footing again, releasing solid work until Mercury’s untimely death in 1991. Three albums stand out:

  • Sheer Heart Attack (1974), the album where the Queen sound really gelled and arguably an even more consistent disc than Opera;
  • News of the World (1977), a fine mess that captures the best of the band and makes the most of its ambition;
  • The Game (1980), home to their biggest US hits and a slightly uneven set with some stunning pop numbers.

Queen released most of their best songs as singles, so compilations are a great way to cover the basics. The 2004 version of Greatest Hits is just that and a perfect overview of the majesty that was Queen.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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